Animation giant Pixar brings its newest outing to the Disney+ streaming service in our new sans-theater world, and while Soul does find a so-so level of originality, it ultimately lands squarely where most Pixar films have since 2010—namely, big ideas are explored through safe and standard storytelling executions.
Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a middle school band teacher by day and a wannabe jazz pianist by night. On the day his dream gig finally arrives, Joe dies in a tragic manhole accident (since manholes are fatal in animation) and finds himself in a dimension where not-yet-born souls are designed for passions, loves and hatreds—in other words, humanity. 22 (Tina Fey) is one of these little ghostly souls waiting to discover its purpose. When the two are paired together, they embark on an unexpected journey through New York City. 22 searches for purpose and Joe searches for a way to get back to living.
Soul explores the big questions like how it's almost impossible to believe we're merely accidents of millions of interacting atoms over trillions of years, or that being "meant" for something might just be a concept we invented to make sense of existence. For Joe, the purpose is jazz, and one has to give Pixar at least some credit for pursuing their deepest subject yet, even if it doesn't have all the answers.
Pixar's first Black lead (in effing 2020, no less) is also an achievement worth noting, and highlighting various skin tones with precision animation lighting techniques to showcase diversity is a very good move from Pixar, especially since animated lighting has to be created from scratch here. In fact, Soul is the best-looking work from Pixar thus far. A jazzy, early autumn NYC filled with existentialism? Oh, yes—the environment looks and feels great.
Pixar scholars will no doubt note the studio's consistent pattern: Another buddy-cop journey in some existential bureaucracy where our protagonists are hunted by someone (or something) for some simple misunderstanding (see Inside Out, Coco, Onward). Tropes and familiarity aren't a crime and can be used well, but Soul tends to feel stilted by antics that fill the already short running time and also somehow make the story drag.
But it's a wholesome experience, and Pixar still makes better projects than our teamwork-allergic society deserves, which continually makes the studio the envy of its competitors. Soul is the best film Pixar's put out in years, even if it doesn't reach the halcyon days between Toy Story and Up.
+ Brilliant animation; Joe is a fantastic protagonist
– Can we stop with heaven-is-a-bureaucracy stories?
Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers
With Foxx and Fey Disney+,
PG, 102 min.